Long gone are the days when the kitchen was tucked away into some corner of the house. Kitchens are now considered the beating heart of most homes, placed front and center with the main living spaces and ground zero for friends and families to gather. Given the amount of time spent in this all-important space, proper kitchen lighting is a must, but getting it right requires more than screwing in a lightbulb or two. There is so much happening in this space, you’ll need to weigh what works best for preparing meals, entertaining, countertop work sessions, and of course, what style of lighting speaks to your design-loving heart. Well, prepare to become an instant expert with our guide to kitchen lighting.

Rustic Kitchen with Wood Table and Industrial Mixed Metal and Glass Chandelier.
Design by Leanne Ford / Photo by Alexandra Ribar

The 4 Levels of Kitchen Lighting

Kitchen lighting generally boils down to (yes, pun intended) four levels, so we’ll start at the top.

1.Recessed Lights
In the ceiling, recessed lights are designed to illuminate an entire space. You’ll hear this style of light referred to by many different names which include downlight, pot light, can light, and canister light. These lights are installed evenly throughout the kitchen to create balanced lighting across the room. If your kitchen is lacking in natural light, recessed lighting can provide a foundational bit of brightness, meaning your more decorative pieces don’t have to do all the lighting work alone. To regulate the intensity, design pros are always in favor of installing dimmers.

2.Hanging Lights
Hanging lights bring the focus to one area specifically. These lights can take on hundreds of forms and fashions in the kitchen space, ranging from drippy chandeliers and industrial pendants lights to simple utilitarian bulbs. Depending on the style, hanging lights can offer focused illumination for tasks like chopping or washing dishes, or spread light evenly across a section of a room, like an eat-in dining area. Since entertaining is no longer relegated to the dining room and now frequently spills into the kitchen space, kitchen islands topped with hanging lights are also common.

Traditional Kitchen with Black Cabinets and Textile Runner Rug on Chairish.

Sconces typically supplement lighting in key areas.Wall sconces are great to use in conjunction with hanging statement fixtures, as they provide both a bit of extra light over prep areas, and lend another aesthetic note, too. They work best in kitchens that have open wall shelving, rather than hanging closed cabinetry, as they help to bring the eye up towards the ceiling, making the kitchen feel extra spacious.

4. Under Cabinet Lights
Under cabinet lights do exactly what their name says, lighting the space that hanging cabinetry leaves in the shadows. These were unheard of until the current decade, but serve a key purpose when it comes to kitchen lighting. Installing them under hanging cabinetry creates a warm ambiance and eliminates shadows that darken counters. In addition to finding the right look, you’ll also need to consider your other priorities, such as heat output, energy efficiency, and ease of installation (if you’ll be installing them yourself).

Kitchen With Art Deco Bar Stools and Vintage Chandelier on Chairish.
Simon Upton / The Interior Archive

Find Your Ideal Hanging Lighting

There are several ways for you to personalize your kitchen lighting, but perhaps the easiest way is selecting an extra special pendant light or chandelier.

Small Pendants
Small pendants are usually grouped together, often in pairs or sets of four, and placed around the periphery of the kitchen. A small island is the perfect place for a series of small pendant lights. Just be sure they are spread strategically and evenly to create ample lighting for performing tasks such as paperwork or food prep.

Large Pendants
Because they are more prominent in size, large pendants will typically be fewer in number (two is most common). Just like the smaller pendants mentioned above, large pendants should be evenly spaced and placed directly above their target. Depending on the style and silhouette, large pendants can be super sculptural and mod, bringing a crisp look to the kitchen, or a more classical, shaded style. They best serve their purpose above an island for kitchen tasks, above an eat-in kitchen table, or perhaps over a tidy breakfast nook.

For something unexpected, a chandelier provides both function and loads of fabulous ornamentation. Unlike large and small pendant lights, a chandelier will not hang in a group, but fly solo, evenly spreading light over a specific space. That being said, chandeliers can make a great counterpoint to small, simple pendants hung nearby. In terms of sizing, a small chandelier can be dwarfed in a large kitchen, so it’s best to err on the larger side, which has the added benefit of more pow for the price.

Rustic Kitchen With Wooden Armoire and White Ceramic Bowls and Vases.
Design by Benjamin Dhong / Photo by John Merkl

Bonus Lighting

Your lighting scheme doesn’t have to be limited to the above options. Placing a table lamp on a countertop is an unexpected touch, and gives your kitchen a warm and homey feel.

Getting The Spacing Right

Depending on your ceiling height, having too many hanging lights in a small kitchen space can make it feel cramped and cluttered. Most designers recommend large hanging lights be limited to one or two, which keeps the room streamlined. Design pros also advise that there should be 30” to 36” between the bottom of hanging lights and the countertops, and pendants should be hung at least 30” apart.

Customized Lighting Levels

It’s time to do away with that simple on/off switch. Experts recommend that every level of kitchen lighting be installed with an individual dimmer, so you can control the intensity of your light and set the mood for various situations. An evening get-together or romantic dinner for two isn’t likely to require the same lighting necessary to churn out your monthly bills.

Classic Kitchen With Black Countertops and Beige Walls and built-in window seat breakfast nook.
Design by Jenny Wolf / Photo by Emily Gilbert

Go Old School

There is most definitely a place for vintage or antique lighting, even in an updated kitchen. With a vintage light, you’ll get a one-of-a-kind piece that will undoubtedly become a major talking point when you entertain.  Plus, you’ll likely find that your purchase is wonderfully constructed; materials used several decades ago were often much sturdier than some of the kitchen lighting options on the market today.

Some things to consider if you’re going vintage or antique:

  • Have it checked by an expert – Make sure all wires are in good working condition.
  • Look at the label – That UL label is a sign that means the lighting was manufactured with safety standards in mind.
  • Check the bulbs – Depending on where it was made, the bulbs that need to be used may not be readily available. A special order may need to be placed to get your fixture up and running.

As you can see now, it isn’t as simple as the flip of a switch. But, when kitchen lighting is done right, it will be one of those key investments that you’ll appreciate morning, noon, and most definitely at night.

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Lead Photo: Design by Studio Life/Style / Photo by Stephen Busken

July 31, 2018

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